Collaboration is not a four-letter word

As funding is cut, academics, extension personnel and
commercial companies have an increased incentive to cooperate to ensure the floriculture
industry continues to thrive.

By David Kuack

With all of the divisiveness going on between Congressional
members and President Obama lately, it’s not surprising that there isn’t a lot being
accomplished in Washington. What has been especially disconcerting is the lack
of willingness on the part of many legislators to work together to come up with
policy decisions that reflect the beliefs of the majority of Americans who
elected them.

Maybe those politicians should have attended this year’s
National Floriculture Forum where a topic of discussion was how university
researchers, extension and commercial companies can work together to ensure the
continued viability of the floriculture industry. Just like in Washington, public
and private funding is being cut or eliminated, which is causing some university
researchers to work more closely with commercial companies to conduct the
research and train the students needed to keep the industry growing.

More than research

During the National Floriculture Forum Syngenta technical
specialist Jamie Gibson discussed the academic and industry perspectives on
research. Gibson, who received his doctorate from North Carolina State
University, was an assistant horticulture professor at the University of
Florida before taking a position with Syngenta.

Jamie Gibson, Syngenta technical specialist, told attendees at this
year’s National Floriculture Forum that the reduction in research
funding has had a major impact on horticultural researchers. 

“Sometimes a grant or a big project isn’t the biggest win
for a university researcher when working with the industry,” Gibson said. “Sometimes
it’s producing an outstanding undergraduate, or training a graduate student how
to properly problem solve an issue or to have a PhD student working on an
industry challenge that can really help growers to improve their profits. The
university still has a great niche for producing talented students to be
managers, researchers or specialists in the industry. Also, the university can
produce sales and marketing people who understand plant science, but also who
have a passion for working in the industry.”

Gibson said the reduction in research funding has had a
major impact on horticultural researchers.

“Today university researchers have to show their
administrators and deans that they are capable of landing the large grants,” he
said. “They are receiving increased pressure to bring in the large grants that
drive overhead costs and maybe support the administrative side of the
university. Researchers need to market themselves well. They not only have to
do good science work, but sometimes they have to partner with industry to do
projects that drive their programs.

“Academics should have a few projects that the industry
is sponsoring whether it is PGR work or nutrition or culture. These are the
projects that challenge and really improve the skill set of undergraduate and
graduate students. The funding for these industry-sponsored projects supports
the researcher’s technician, undergraduate researchers and it pays the bills.
The larger grants enable master’s students and PhD students to focus on the
bigger picture, making sure scholarly work is being done.

“There has to be a balance. The so-called “spray-and-pray”
research projects offer academics the opportunities to engage with the industry
very well. They do have relevancy.”

Going where the money

Peter Konjoian, president of consulting and research company
Konjoian’s Floriculture Education Services, told the National Floriculture Forum
attendees that there is much more cooperation and collaboration today between university
researchers than there was back in the 1970s and ’80s. Konjoian received his
PhD from Ohio State University and was an assistant horticulture professor at
the University of Maryland for two years before returning to his family’s
greenhouse business.

“When I was a graduate student and then a university
researcher, it was Ohio State vs. Michigan State and OFA vs. BPI. At that time there
was enough money available that you didn’t have to think about collaborating
with another university. Research funding flowed much more freely back then.
Today research money is tough to find and everything revolves around money,
whether we’re talking about one company or an entire industry.
Peter Konjoian, president of Konjoian’s Floriculture Education
Services, told National Floriculture Forum attendees that there is
much more cooperation and collaboration today between university
researchers than there was back in the 1970s and ’80s.

“During the ’70s and ’80s, there was profit margin in
every segment of the supply chain. Today those margins have eroded to the point
where they are razor thin.”

Konjoian said another reality is there are only a
fraction of the university horticulture positions today that there were in the

“As horticulture professors retire their positions are
going away and other positions are being blended into the broader discipline of
plant science,” he said. “There are very few traditional horticultural programs
left in the U.S. If there were more university horticultural positions
available, many of the grad students would be looking there first for
employment opportunities.”

Konjoian said an increasing number of university
researchers are working together on projects enabling them to play to each
other’s personal and program strengths.

“The Young Plant Research Center, the Floriculture
Research Alliance, the Floriculture Sustainability Research Coalition, the
Water Education Alliance for Horticulture and e-GRO are just a few examples of
how university researchers are pulling together and collaborating among
themselves and industry,” Konjoian said. “Twenty or 30 years ago there is no
way the universities and industry are going to collaborate on research. Today
and in the future I can see research projects that include certain parts being
done at a university greenhouse and other parts at a commercial greenhouse. How
can the public and private sectors collaborate to improve efficiency and better
serve our growers? What can I do best in my private setting and what can a
university researcher do that I’m not equipped to do.”

Konjoian said when he was in graduate school in the late
’70s and early ‘80s there was often a negative connotation placed on applied

“Back then applied research didn’t have the prestige,” he
said. “Now university researchers are looking for money wherever they can find
it. If they are going to attract money for research on PGRs or growing media or
crop nutrition, then they are going to include applied projects in their

“Many researchers, especially the younger ones,
understand they need industry more because there is less money coming in, less
state and federal funding is available. If that means doing applied research,
then so be it”


Konjoian said another change that has occurred is the
loss of extension services and personnel dedicated to the horticulture

“When I was in graduate school it seemed like every state
extension service and state grower association published its own grower
newsletter,” he said. “We are going to continue to see privatization of
extension work because the public tax dollars are not available any more. Those
tax dollars are going to serve more people in the public sector.

“Over my career I have seen some level of privatization
occurring in teaching, research and extension. This is justifiable because more
tax dollars are being spent on programs that assist a larger number of
taxpayers and not just our small industry. If the taxpayers are not going to
pay for these extension services, then industry participants, including the
growers are going to have to pay for them. Either that or the services will go
away completely.”
Peter Konjoian, who does research and consulting work for
industry companies, would like to see increased collaboration
between the commercial side and universities.
Konjoian is quick to point out that there are still
plenty of good extension specialists at the universities. He said the private
sector has picked up the slack on some services that extension hasn’t been able
to continue to offer.

“This is an excellent example of the collaborative
efforts our industry needs to make,” he said. “How are we going to work
together? Could there be a national extension group that is supported by
private companies? Extension specialists have been told by their administrators
that they need to be more efficient and touch more growers via the web or in
other ways. That being the reality, just because specialists now find it more
difficult to justify one-on-one service doesn’t mean growers don’t still need
one-on-one attention. The difference today is that growers need to understand
that they have to pay for such service because public tax dollars no longer

For more:
Jamie Gibson, Syngenta Flowers, Home and Garden, Syngenta Flowers Inc.,; Peter Konjoian, Konjoian’s Floriculture Education Services,

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort
Worth, Texas;

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